Even the sights and sounds are different in the modern, New Age Tallinn. Ringing mobile phones, the roar of passenger helicopters, mouse clicks, horns honking at rush hour—all notes of modernity that were virtually unknown in the capital ten years ago. It is all, of course, the buzz of a bustling, economically dynamic nation who’s now in the European Union and NATO.
Old and New
Tallinn has been sacked, pillaged and bombed so many times over the centuries, it's a
wonder anything from the past survives at all. First there were the invading Danes, then
the Teutonic Knights, the Swedes, the Russians, the Nazis, and the Soviets. But the
Estonian capital has in fact retained more
remnants of its past, and in a more complete
state, than the majority of European cities. Tallinn's charming old townwith its
kilometers of winding cobblestone streets and storybook medieval housesis the most
obvious example. Other parts of the city are virtual museums of other eras. The Nõmme
suburb is a trip back in time to the 1930s, when Estonia was developing fast during its
first period of independence; in Kadriorg, you can almost picture Czarist-era aristocrats
strolling through the tree-lined streets and garden parks. A less likely attraction is the
vast, ungodly Lasnamäe apartment district, which captures the Soviet version of suburban
paradise in all its horrifying glory. As time has passed and as the bitterness about
Moscow rule has somewhat subsided, things Sovietlike Lasnamäehave almost
While the city remains a living museum, it has also been modernizing at breakneck
speed, urged on by a new moneyed class anxious of Estonia, who, for better or worse, want
to leave their own mark for posterity. This is especially evident in the city center,
where development has been proceeding at a head-spinning pace. New buildings are going up
by the month, and old ones are being gutted and refurbished almost daily. Developers have
even begun to reconstruct the few sections of the old city that were bombed by Soviet
forces in 1944the surest sign yet that history is being consigned to the textbooks
and that progress is now taking precedence.
Estonians dont take kindly to their country being described as
tiny. Theyre fond of pointing out that many nations are smaller.
Geographically, Estonia is larger than Denmark, Belgium, Holland, Israel
Estonia is distinguished by its over 1000 islands
(the other two Baltics have none) and by its winding
coastlinewhich, with its twists and turns, adds up to a surprising
3,794 kilometers. Estonia also has more marshland per square kilometer
than anywhere in Europe; bogs cover some 20 percent of the country.
Forests cover nearly 40 percent.
Estonian population: 1.4 million; 65% Estonian, 32% Russian-speaking.
Main religions: Most ethnic Estonians are Lutheranwith a
minority of Orthodox (loyal to Constantinople) among them. Most ethnic
Russians are Russian Orthodoxloyal to Moscows Patriarch.
Tallinn population: 430,000.
Other large cities: Tartu, 105,000; Narva, 80,000; Kohtla-Järve,
70,000; Pärnu, 50,000.
Total territory: 45,227 sq. km, a bit larger than the Netherlands.
Highest Point: Suur Munamägi (Big Egg Mountain) is 318
meters high; this glorified hill in south Estonia is the
highest point in the Baltics.
Climate: July is the warmest month, when temperatures hover
around 20°C (68°F); in February, temperatures average -5°C (23°F).
"The streets of
Tallinn are not straight, and are so narrow that cabmen are forced to ride with bells in
order not to run into those coming in the opposite direction. An inquisitive gossip can
see everything across a street into the room of her neighbor."
Russian officer Alexander Bestuzhev in 1821,
in an account of his trip to Tallinn.
town of pewter-colored steeples, red roofs, quaint alleyways, numerous towers like
gigantic pepper boxes and a treasure of medieval architecture."
The Manchester Quarterly, 1933.
cheapest and most interesting country in Europe."
From the American travel book, Undiscovered Europe,
built on salt."
A saying in the Middle Ages, referring
to riches Tallinn accumulated from East-West trade; salt from Spain to Russia was a main
Their neighbors tend to view Estonians as overconfident to a
fault; one Moscow based Western journalist after interviewing many
people here wrote: Only an Estonian after a lengthy pause could say,
I think I know exactly the right answer to that question.
If Estonians tend to be self-confident, theyre usually self-confident
quietly. An Estonians motto for behavior, says Estonian
psychiatrist Anti Liiv, is: May your face be as ice: Its
better not to say anything because, as Americas police say, anything
you say can be used against you. That may be a slight
exaggeration, but its true Estonians arent prone to emotional
extremes, and can be standoffish. This can be misunderstood: just
because they dont pour praise over you doesnt mean they dont
like you. If Estonians do say something, its usually sincere and
directto the point of bluntness. Estonians pride themselves on taking
a cool, rational approach to problems, so much so that they often go at
tasks more with their head than with their heart and soul. This rational
streak accounts for a tendency to collective common sense: Estonians
often end up doing the right thingwhether they like it or not. While
they can be stiff, Estonians arent prudes. Theres a strong
libertarian strain here: most Estonians believe you ought to be able to
do your own thing, soar to new heights or dig your own grave, so long as
you dont infringe on anyone elses space.
Eestiwhich is Estonia in Estonianseems to be derived from Æstii,
used by a Roman chronicler in 100 B.C. to describe tribes east of the Germans. He didn't
have Estonians in mind per se, using the word to describe all peoples in the region. But
forms of Æstii were eventually applied to Estonians only; Latin scholars refer
to Hestia and Esthonia.
Tallinn was first referred to in chronicles in 1154 by an Arab, al-Idrisi,
who called it Kolõvan. Scandinavians called it Lindanäs.
Germans later called it Reval. Tallinn likely derives from
the Estonian for Danish city (Taani linn), dating to when Danes
Vowel-laden Estonian is Finno-Ugricclosely related to Finnish.
Its notoriously difficult, thanks in no small part to its 14 case
ending. English is overtaking Russian as the most widely spoken second
languageso the linguistically challenged can virtually always get by
with English alone. That said, picking up some phrases can be
usefuland is certain to charm and flatter local Estonians.
In Estonian the stress is on the first syllable,
and pronunciation is phoneticthat is, you sound out all the
letters. J sounds like y in English, ä
is strong like the a in apple, ö is like o
in word, õ like o in open, ü
like hoot; double vowels have the same sound but are just
longer. The consonants are roughly the same as in English, though
Aitäh or Tänan/Thanks
Nägemist or Head aega/Good-bye
Kas te räägite inglise keelt?/Do you speak English?
Kas teil on...?/Do
Ma soovin.../I would like...
Kui palju see maksab?/How much does this cost?
Pood or Kauplus/Store
Head isu/Bon appetit
Terviseks/ To your health
null/zero üks/one kaks/two
kolm/three neli/four viis/five kuus/six seitse/seven
kaheksa/eight üheksa/nine kümme/ten sada/100
Also see Top
Ten Misconception about Estonia.
Quotables about Tallinn Estonians
Back to Top